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Inspirational Reads

The Bawdy Bard: A Review of Filthy Shakespeare

March 23, 2009

You guys have no fucking idea how long I've been waiting to write up this fucking review.

Oh, okay, wait, wait...trying to be somewhat professional here. Filthy Shakespeare by Pauline Kiernan is one of the best fucking books I've ever read!

I am failing miserably here on this whole lame attempt at trying to be serious, so I'll just write like I normally do. If you don't like it, here's a rope you may go piss up.

You guys know how I'm trying to get this book thing published. Late last year, I started picking up and reading various books about grammar and the English language, with usage, word formation, and other various aspects of etymology. This was an attempt to make myself into a better writer. I figure, as I'm slowly grinding my way through my magnum opus, if I could become a better writer while I'm doing yet another read through and rewrite, then my story could be as close to perfect as I could possibly hope it to be.

Enter Filthy Shakespeare. My wife, the Buxom and Comely and Easily Terrified and Truly Appreciative of a Good Sexual Pun Boudicca, bought me this book for Christmas, kind of as a humorous gift (I bought her a book of X-Treme Latin the prior Christmas) and kind of as a nod to my love of the Bard. Right away I took to the book and quickly devoured it. And I loved every second of it.

Granted, it's an easy read. There's a lot of excerpts from various Shakespeare plays which take up large portions of the pages. These are followed by "translations" from the English of Shakespeare's time into a more modern flow of words. The author, Pauline Kiernan, is a Ph.D. from Oxford, where she taught for many years on the subject of Willy the Bard and Renaissance Drama, so she obviously is very familiar with Shakespeare, the language of the day, and the meaning of the plays.

She starts the book by giving a brief oversight of London in Shakespeare's day, of the everyday life of a typical Londoner, the political climate within England, Puritanical movements, and sexual practices, both legal and illicit. People of the day were as fascinated by sex as we are, but some of the political clout held by the church and by the growing population of Puritans caused Shakespeare to use some clever double-speak in order to hide some rather overt sexuality. Most of the time these come off as rather amusing, and I was often reminded of that famous Shakespearean symbolism that we were supposed to digest and regurgitate on tests in high school.

For instance, Mercutio, Romeo's best friend, is perhaps as big a perv as I am. A lot of times, it seems, he appears to Romeo like Bluto Blutarsky on Larry Kroger's shoulders, essentially screaming "Fuck her! Fuck her lights out!" into Romeo's ears. Also, some of the interactions between Hamlet and Ophelia reflect a deeper, more sexually charged relationship, all while deepening the two roles for the characters: Hamlet of pretending to be batshit crazy and Ophelia being driven mad by Hamlet's nuttiness (and apparently his desire to fire off a wad in her face, Peter North style).

However, there are times when I feel that Kiernan is reaching on the double-speak. For instance, in Othello, when Iago is setting up Roderigo to kill Cassio, he tells him to "wear thy good rapier bare, and put it home." I mean, I understand that the dick is a "meat sword" and all, but it seems quite a stretch to take the whole scene and interpret it as a veiled reference to Roderigo masturbating over the thought of fucking Desdemona. Sometimes, a sword is just a sword.

Despite this, Kiernan does a wonderful job illustrating the sexual imagery and punnery within Shakespeare's plays. She even goes so far as to show us that the Bard's name itself is a pun on masturbation: shake one's spear. Brilliant, no? I also learned that, when I picked a name for my blog, what I thought was a harmless reference to my book was really a veiled reference to a gangbang (crown = round, implying the circular opening of the female genitalia, and thistle = penis, pluralized here, implying many) or anal sex (crown = the crown of a hill, hill implying the smooth, rounded mound of a buttocks, thistle = penis). I also learned that a lot of "filthy" words aren't nearly as new as I would have imagined; in fact, "cunt" was actually used by Chaucer (himself a rather bawdy teller of tales) in The Canterbury Tales (therein found as "queynte"...remember that, at the time of Chaucer, English still had a heavily...French...influence, and so the /qu/ is not pronounced like we do today, but as a hard /c/ sound). Shakespeare made reference to "cunt" quite often, most of the time hidden in words like "country" or "counter" or "contrary" (look at the first syllable). Oh Willy, thou canst turn a phrase, canst though?

At the end of the book, Kiernan provides an appendix wherein you can find all the references that she cites across Shakespeare's various plays, sonnets and other writings. This, inadvertently, helped me to complete the Shakespeare quiz on Sporcle in under three minutes. Coriolanus indeed. Also, Kiernan provides a list of Shakespeare's various sexual references, puns, and symbolism in the appendix, again culling them from all of his writing. It was here I found perhaps my most favorite euphemism for sex: "groping for trouts". Expect to see that popping up around here in the future.

It might not seem like the best source for self-improvement, but I can already see myself reaping the benefits of reading this book in my own writing. I completely reworked an entire chapter, and, thanks to this book, I became a touch more creative with some of the hidden symbolism. It wasn't exactly as lewd as Mercutio's conversations with Romeo, but I thought I did an excellent job. When a character meets her future husband (unknown to either character), she feels a writhing in her stomach and a heavy weight on her shoulders, referencing a possible future pregnancy and bearing the weight of his arm across her back or, more naughtily, his sexual weight upon her back. I've worked in a few other things, but I don't want to give all my tricks away here. Suffice it to say, I feel I've become a better writer by having a more covert approach to some imagery and foreshadowing.

In short, if you like sex (which all of you do), I recommend this book. If you like Shakespeare (which all of you should!), I also recommend this book. If you're a stuck-up prude, I also recommend this book, so that, perhaps, it will get you more inclined to "stretch the velvet"...if you know what I'm saying.


Scope said...

I was always fond of "the beast with two backs" from Othello, personally.

Sass said...

I'm a prude.

I'm offended.

No wait...I lied.

Sassy Britches said...

I feel I need a cold shower after the "stretch the velvet" part. *yummy shiver*

words...words...words... said...

This sounds like my kind of book. Also, I can't figure out why Anne Hathaway is pictured, and I don't much care.

Soda and Candy said...

Haha, awesome. I love intellectual dirtiness.

Girl Interrupted said...

Great post! I'm a bit of a fan myself, I even have a "Shakespearean Curse of the Day" gadget on my blog.

The Anne Hathaway reference is very clever! (bet Willy's woman didn't look like her though):P

BeckEye said...

High school teachers should use this book. It would be a good way to get students to give a shit about reading Shakespeare.

Fancy Schmancy said...

Damn, I love witty, dirty men!

Cora said...

Ohhh, brilliant! This is now on the top of my MUST READ NOW list!

Candy's daily Dandy said...

I like sex and Shakespeare, so does that make me a prude?

Now I'm all horned up and confused.

TishTash said...

I already rock the Shakespeare categories on Jeopardy. So I don't see how reading this book could further improve me.

Kimizzy said...

That. is. awesome. I'm going to buy that book now. :)

red said...

This sounds awesome. I'm adding it to the list.

Lisa-tastrophies said...

I am giggling at the thought of adding this book to my class lesson plan on Shakespeare. Of course I don't think 7th graders will care much for the fine eloquence that is the Bard's pithy way of making a "booty call" sound almost respectable. Oh a pox on their houses....

P.s. on another note: Good to see you back MJenks. Have had you & the family in my prayers. Sending faith, hope and love to you all.

Nej said...

Sometimes a sword is just a sword.

Isn't that the truth!

The book is intriguing. I'm going to have to put it on the list of must reads. :-)